Eventually I dragged myself away from my seat overlooking the Itchen Valley and, humming to myself, set off along the lane towards Church Fields. There were sheep grazing on the Water Farm fields. At this point I had a choice of route, down the winding lane to Shawford and onto the Navigation, or across the road and through the southern part of Twyford Village. The Navigation was tempting, mostly because it meant avoiding the horrors of a mile and a bit of footpathless Highbridge Road with cars zooming past at fifty plus miles an hour. The Navigation, on the other hand, would have mud and breached banks. The section between Otterbourne and Allbrook was almost impassable on my last visit. Taking that option could well mean having to turn back.
In the end the road won, mostly due to memories of all the lovely old cottages in Twyford Village, well that and not wanting to fall into the Itchen. Across the road Honeysuckle Cottage, with real honeysuckle clambering over an arched trellis made me smile even though it’s not in flower. Up the steep and winding lane, rather appropriately called School Road, past pretty white cottages trimmed with flint, is the school. This is the the primary school not the prep school in the village famed for expelling Alexander Pope for writing mocking verses about a master. The pretty little flint and brick school house of St Mary’s is over a hundred and fifty years old and worthy of a few photos. Unfortunately, it was playtime and, in these days of paranoia, taking pictures of children that aren’t your own is frowned upon so all I got was one shot through the fence.
At the top of the road I turned onto Queen Street and was soon on the High Street. The majority of the dwellings are clustered here, a collection of pretty buildings of varying ages leaning at odd angles with doors opening onto narrow pavements. These days there are two pubs almost opposite each other, The Phoenix and The Bugle, a travel agent and a post office which doubles as a general store. This gives an insight into the priorities of the locals.
Twyford is an ancient place, named for two fords across the Itchen. It also seems to have passed through a lot of hands over the years. In 964 it was given to Winchester College by King Edgar but was given back to the crown in the sixteenth century. King Edward VI gave it to his uncle, Sir Henry Seymour, and it was then sold to the Mildmay family in 1857. As villages go it’s picturesque and, of course I spent a while snapping away before I set off towards Highbridge Road.
Away from the centre of the village the houses thin out and, after one last terrace of pretty white and pale blue painted cottages and the Minis R Us garage with dozens of old mini cars on the forecourt, the road slopes gently uphill bordered by trees. Thinking of the road ahead there was a brief moment when I wished I’d chosen the Navigation route but the sight of the long wall and the sixteenth century barn right on the edge of the village reminded me of all I’d have missed if I had. The barn is a real thing of beauty with a blocked off arched doorway that coild almost belong to a church and a slightly wobbly roof that indicates great age. Apparently the barn is still in use, divided into segments and parcelled out to the pretty wooden fronted cottages of Manor Farm Green, but I’m pretty sure they don’t store hay in there nowadays.
Then I really was saying goodbye to Twyford and the next cottage I came to stood alone half way between Twyford and Colden Common. A prettier dwelling you could not wish to see, painted cream with window boxes and hanging baskets bursting with spring flowers and a row of crocuses brightening the front wall. Pretty soon I was too busy trying to find a way across the busy road to think of anything much and, once I had, I was on Highbridge Road watching out for oncoming cars. For over a mile there is no footpath and the speed limit is fifty miles an hour so the cars are coming fast. For the most part there are narrow verges to jump onto but they tend to be muddy and, in places, are so overgrown with brambles it’s impossible to get out of the road. These are not my favourite walking conditions.
As a reward there are pleasant views if you dare take your eyes off the road ahead. Not far from the junction is The Lodge, a quaint late nineteenth century house with Flint walls topped by decorative mock tudor beams and pretty leaded windows. This was once the lodge to Twyford Moors House. Close by the blackthorn are flowering and, at great risk to my personal safety, I stopped to take a photo. Luckily the road was fairly quiet so I survived.
About half way along the footpathless stretch there is a welcome break from the incessant road watching where a small service track arches off before rejoining the road. The house it serves is East Lodge, hidden behind a high wall with grand entrance gates and a huge pampas grass on either side. This was once the lodge to Brambridge House. Sadly, this little break was short lived and I was soon back on the road looking out over the fields of Brambridge House when I dared.
Brambridge house has a long and interesting history. Once the property of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and home to the High Sherrif of Hampshire, in 1636 Charles I gave the land to Gilbert Welles and eventually it passed into the hands of the Smythe family. There has been a house on the site since the sixteenth century and it was once a refuge for Roman Catholic priests. The original house burnt down in 1872 but was quickly rebuilt. Like so many houses of this kind, it has now been divided into flats, the fields sold off to local farmers, along with the magnificent double avenue of lime trees that once led to the entrance. These were planted in the early 1800’s to provide timber for musket stocks but, as the Napoleonic wars ended before they were mature, no muskets were ever made from them. These days horses wander through them and I have never passed by without seeing at least a few in the fields.
Horses aren’t the only things that wander in these fields apparently. There are also ghosts. Maria, the daughter of Walter Smythe was better known as Mrs Fitzherbert, who illegally married the Prince of Wales before he became King George IV. During the Napoleonic wars the grounds were used to house French prisoners of war and it’s said that ghostly figures can sometimes be seen riding in these fields at night chasing escaped Frenchmen.
Thankfully, once I’d passed the house and the busy crossing where Kiln Lane joins Highbridge Road, I had a footpath to walk on and could relax a little. There’s another pretty cottage to pass, perhaps once also a lodge, shortly after which the Itchen crossed my path again. The river had been meandering across Twyford Moors the whole time behind all the properties I’d passed dividing up into a confusing puzzle of tributaries and streams but I hadn’t actually seen it since I left Church Lane and my peaceful hill. Here it runs through a weir and under the road so it was the briefest of meetings but it took my mind back to the Navigation.
The next buildings are also inextricably linked with the Navigation. A pretty Thatched cottage and a rather stately looking house set back slightly from the road belong to Highbridge Farm whose owner, Henry Russell, has earned my undying gratitude. Not only has he given a 1.7 acre field to the Highbridge Community Project, a group of local people who use the land to grow their own organic produce, but he was the man who replaced Withymead Bridge after vandals destroyed the old wooden bridge. For more than six months the section of Navigation between Bishopstoke and Allbrook was impassable because there was no way to cross the river. The council said they couldn’t afford a new bridge but Farmer Russell stepped in as he felt the delay in reopening the path was ’embarrassing.’ What a wonderful man!
Pretty soon I was saying hello to the Itchen again at the worryingly damaged Allbrook Bridge. This time it was the Itchen Navigation rather than the river proper and a quick look down the path told me I was wise to take the road route. Not only was there rather a lot of mud but the signs that have been up for over a year saying the path is closed due to flooding have been added to by a rather emphatic green notice saying Path Closed. Whether the huge crack in the wall is a result of the flooding or a careless driver remains to be seen but I was happy to see the water level on the tumbling Albrook weir didn’t look too high or ferocious.
Across the road the penultimate stretch of the Navigation just had the normal warning sign. It’s been there so long it feels like the powers that be are crying wolf because the path beyond is perfectly passable for the most part. I looked at it, thought of the steep hill and long road walk to Eastleigh, and decided to ignore it. The river was high but the path seemed fairly stable so I thought it was worth the risk. There were a few big puddles under the first railway bridge and a bit of mud here and there but nothing I couldn’t cross.
Soon I was passing the lovely gardens that stretch down to the water along Twyford Road where homeowners make good use of their river views. There are decks, summer houses, benches and lovely gateways that always get my house envy working overtime. I can’t imagine anything nicer than having the river at the bottom of my garden. One lucky lady was standing on her decking feeding the swans as I passed by and I felt a real stab of jealousy. Swans at the bottom of my garden would feel like a dream come true. Of course the risk of flooding is the downside of such luxury.
When I came to Ham Farm I decided to ignore the exit point and keep going. Just after the rustic bench I passed under the second railway bridge where I had to duck under a large fallen tree. Withymead Bridge was just around the corner and, thanks to Farmer Russell, I was able to cross in comfort. This is the point where the Itchen and Navigation join again so the water is fairly wild and crossing without a bridge would be impossible.
There were cows laying down in the Bishopstoke fields which is usually a sign of rain. This had me looking quizzically at the sky but it remained resolutely blue with sun turning the opposite meadows to gold and the river a beautiful shade of blue. From this point on it was plain sailing apart from a few muddy puddles and one small breach I could easily jump. It was a different story when I came to the Southampton stretch of canal though. There was another of those green warning signs and, knowing that this is the least cared for part of the Navigation with no way off, I decided to make my way to Eastleigh and walk home from there.
In the end the cows were right. Just as I got to the railway station the sky turned a horrible shade of black. Luckily a bus came down the road at that exact moment and I got on. Within seconds the heavens opened and the next few minutes brought the heaviest hailstorm I have ever seen. In future I shall be listening more carefully to what the cows are trying to tell me.